LIVECORP has defended early research trials into the impacts of sheep and cattle stocking densities during live export despite criticism they were not replicating conditions on vessels.
Experienced live export veterinarian with exporter Wellard Dr David Jarvie criticised the use of New England Merinos in the research, despite the fact that most sheep being exported live from Australia are now sourced from Western Australia.
In a Livestock Export Program Update webinar earlier this year, the New South Wales-based University of New England showed New England Merinos in research pens with plastic floor grating or pads and water supplied from small stainless steel troughs that are not typical for live export vessels. Air flow and temperature was being controlled in some of the trials, and they were regularly cleaned to remove dung and urine to minimise ammonia impacts.
The initial trials are being run in the climate rooms of the University of Queensland’s Gatton Campus Queensland Animal Science Precinct.
During the webinar, Dr Jarvie told University of New England researchers the indoor conditions that sheep are being kept in for the trial, as shown in a video, didn’t appear to replicate those on vessels. Sheep Central has viewed the published video provided during the webinar; however, it is was made unavailable and “private” after researchers were asked questions about Dr Jarvie’s feedback.
LiveCorp and Meat & Livestock Australia’s research and development LEP have provided $1.2 million in funding for the four-year research project, with UNE providing significant in-kind contributions of nearly $1 million in salaries and student allocations.
A project overview said the peer-reviewed research “will lead to a scientifically robust understanding of the links between livestock welfare, bedding and ammonia management, and stocking density during the livestock export process.”
“The research will support industry and government in the development of accurate and effective standards under the current ASEL regulation relating to stocking density, and ammonia and bedding,” the overview said.
During the webinar, Dr Jarvie noted the type of water troughs being used and the likely observer effect on sheep behaviour.
“The observer effect and outside effects on this experiment to me would question the validity of the results.
“The other point is you are feeding out the water in a bowl, which doesn’t normally occur on sheep vessels,” he said.
“The pad effect to me would be a major effect on behaviour as well.
“So I just wonder how you are going to draw any real validity from this when you haven’t really even gone close to simulating conditions on a vessel with low air flow, no heat being emanated from the pad?” Dr Jarvie said.
“You’ve got New England Merinos that don’t bear any resemblance to Western Australian Merinos.”
Dr Jarvie said it was his experience that New England Merinos were the least adapted sheep for live export.
“I just wonder how you are going to extrapolate your results to the real world?”
Research is “building up from the bottom” – Tait
Lead researcher Amy Tait said the said it has to be realised that the experiments are “building up from the bottom.”
“We are not adding accumulated stresses yet, we’ve got all of those bedding and ammonia experiments happening on the side.”
Dr Tait said the research had a working group that included exporters and people from LiveCorp and MLA, who sent her experiment designs for feedback before trials are started. She said all the data that is collected in the indoor experiments will be tested in actual on-ship voyage trials.
“We are going to be able to get these results and test that on ship.
“It’s not meant to look like a ship, it’s meant to look under experimental conditions and then we are going to start to add our other potential effects to the environment around the animals,” she said.
“Then we are going to have the pad, we are going to have the rocking of the boat, we are going to have the ammonia build-up, the heat from the pad, that’s all going to come on ship.”
Project designed to give clearest outcomes for industry – Livecorp
LiveCorp chief executive officer Wayne Collier recently responded to Sheep Central questions about Dr Jarvie’s concerns but gave no indication that the veterinarian’s feedback had been acted on, that the trial conditions had been changed or that the New England Merinos had been replaced by WA Merinos.
Mr Collier said the research aims to examine the interactions between stocking density, ammonia gas generation, and bedding, and the effects these have on sheep and cattle welfare and performance under varying conditions.
“These were identified as critical issues during the review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), and there remain gaps in the science to justify existing standards,” he said.
“The objective is to use land-based studies to quantify and identify relationships and influences within the complex (causal) web that exists in relation to these factors, and importantly to then take the preliminary findings on board a live export vessel to validate and test in real-world scenarios and ensure commercial relevance.
“The significant challenge for this research is that there are multiple, interrelated factors that contribute to outcomes on a vessel and the level of one factor will influence the impact of another on particular outcomes,” Mr Collier said.
“Further, in a real-world on-board environment, it is nearly impossible to isolate the impact of any individual factor because of the complexity and variability of these interrelationships.
“For this reason, the project is being carried out in nine separate phases in controlled/laboratory conditions,” he said.
Mr Collier said each trial is aimed at isolating and investigating one or more of the many, interrelated factors that contribute to animal welfare outcomes on a vessel.
“Many trials will be replicated and repeated with sheep and then cattle.
“By taking the trials into a lab, where some factors can be controlled to allow each of the others to be isolated and tested, it is possible to better identify and quantify the impact of a particular variable,” he said.
“For instance, it allows the impact of different levels of ammonia to be examined, without the complication of changes in temperature affecting the results.
“In combination, the trials will aim to build an understanding across the entire system of factors within the causal web,” Mr Collier said.
“These will then be taken and tested in the real-world environment on a livestock export vessel.”
Mr Collier said the entire project is being supported by a working group which discusses the methodology of each trial with the UNE team of researchers before it begins.
“The working group is made up of experienced exporters, an Australian accredited veterinarian, a representative from the Department of Agriculture, an independent technical/scientific advisor, and representatives of LiveCorp and MLA.
The working group works with the team at UNE to consider factors such as the breed of animals, where to source them, and the conditioning they should receive; for instance, to ensure they are acclimatised to environmental conditions similar to where consignments would be sourced at a particular time of year, before any trial begins,” he said.
“All the experimental components and the project’s design have been engineered to give the best and clearest outcomes for industry and to inform best practice.”